Workplace Safety Blog Post

Occupational Carcinogens

Safety Label

Some occupational cancer-causing agents such as asbestos are well known and well documented. Asbestos fibers in the air can get into the lungs and cause cancer even decades later. Many other carcinogens are present in workplaces too, though, which don’t have household names. According to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) in the United Kingdom, the world’s largest professional health and safety membership organization, more than 50 substances are known or probable workplace carcinogens.

Estimates indicate that more than 666,000 people die annually worldwide from occupational cancers. Here in the U.S., NIOSH estimates between four and 10 percent of cancers diagnosed annually—which amounts to approximately 48,000 cases—originated in the workplace.

Occupational carcinogens can be difficult to deal with. Thousands of chemicals are used in workplaces, but very few have specific OSHA rules regulating them. Late last year, OSHA even asked for input from industries about how to update permissible exposure limits (the amount of a substance that it is safe for a person to be exposed to, usually over an eight-hour period) because its exposure limits are in many cases significantly outdated and the agency is struggling to update them efficiently.

In the United Kingdom, IOSH launched a campaign last November to raise awareness about occupational carcinogens, provide resources for businesses and find methods that could eventually be used internationally to reduce carcinogen exposures in workplaces. The campaign, called No Time to Lose, draws on the research of Dr. Lesley Rushton of Imperial College, London, who recently published a report about the links between cancers and the jobs people held during their lives.

The campaign website explains that the odds that a worker will develop cancer depend on many environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors. However, occupational exposures still play a significant role in the development of many cancers.

Common Work-Related Cancers and Carcinogens

Carcinogen exposures in the workplace commonly lead to the development of lung, skin, bladder and breast cancer, according to IOSH.

Many substances found in workplaces can be connected to these cancers. Common substances known to cause cancer include:

  • Asbestos
  • Diesel fumes
  • Coal tars
  • Pesticides
  • Mineral oils
  • Metalworking fluids
  • Silica dust
  • Solvents
  • Dioxins
  • Wood dusts
  • Welding fumes

Additional occupational exposures that aren’t chemicals or dusts can cause cancer, too. Two examples are shift work (which has been shown to lead to breast cancer) and UV radiation exposure (which leads to skin cancer).

The National Institutes of Health publishes a list of carcinogens as a reference, as does the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

OSHA Occupational Carcinogen Regulations

OSHA regulations related to occupational carcinogens can be found in 29 CFR 1910 Subpart Z. Specific sections are dedicated to some known carcinogens such as asbestos and vinyl chloride.

Knowing that OSHA considers some of its permissible exposure limits for hazardous chemicals outdated and knowing that many possible carcinogens aren’t listed in specific standards, appropriately dealing with potential carcinogens in the workplace can be daunting.

OSHA Recommendations

While the regulations themselves might not cover all possible carcinogens, OSHA does provide suggestions for eliminating or minimizing exposures.

First, consult safety data sheets (SDSs) for the hazardous chemicals used in your workplace. These sheets should provide information about human health impacts, including whether a substance is known to cause or potentially cause cancer.

Once you know what hazardous substances you have on hand, create a system for managing them. OSHA has recently stressed the importance of having process safety management plans for the handling of hazardous materials and for dealing with emergencies.

Chemical Drums

You should also look at controls you can use in the workplace for preventing workers from breathing or touching dangerous materials. Adequate ventilation is an important tool. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is important, too (although it should always be the last line of defense against hazards). Some carcinogens may require the use of gloves, boots and air-supplied hoods. Others may require the use of respirators. Consult SDSs for information about recommended PPE.

Occupational Cancers – Not Just Numbers 

The No Time to Lose campaign tells the stories of workers impacted by occupational cancers. These stories are significant, as they raise awareness about the fact that these are real people being affected, not just statistics.

For example, a former schoolteacher who was exposed to asbestos in the school where she taught talks about her experience being diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. A former electrical engineer also explains how he was exposed to asbestos while working with piping and wiring in factories in his twenties. He then developed incurable mesothelioma in his sixties.

Many unfortunate examples also exist of workers exposed to carcinogens that weren’t recognized at the time, but are now known to be dangerous. More than 50 workers at a Goodyear tire plant in New York developed bladder cancer after working with a chemical called ortho-toluidine that was used to make a substance that kept tires from cracking. The chemical was used for decades before preventative measures where taken to reduce exposures.

While you can’t know everything about chemicals in your workplace, you should do all you can to identify possible hazards that could cause cancer. Adjust the workplace and work processes to reduce exposures, provide protective gear and educate your staff about the risks. You should do this during trainings, but you can also post visual reminders in locations where exposures could occur.

Additional Resources